If Netflix’s Luke Cage is about anything, it’s about power — and no word is imbued with as much unique power in black life as “nigga.” Luke Cage himself makes that much clear. Early on in the new series, Luke (Mike Colter) is held up at gunpoint. “What’re you doing here, nigga?” asks the young, black gunman. “Young man,” Luke says, “I’ve had a long day. I’m tired. But I’m not tired enough to ever let nobody call me that word. You see a nigga standing in front of you?” Luke is an invulnerable superhero who can’t be harmed by any old bullet. But his defiant response exposes his vulnerability, and the pain he feels lashed to the word. When the youth replies, “Yeah. A dead one,” Luke’s frustration is palpable.
To be clear, while Luke Cage the man is railing against a word he deems unworthy of black lips, Luke Cage the show isn’t. Instead, it embraces that word’s place in our lexicon as a means of understanding suffering, reclamation, identity, and where power lies in the black experience. (Even more notable: Marvel Entertainment is a Disney subsidiary. When was the last time that word was uttered on a Disney series?) The show, taking place in a modern-day Harlem deeply concerned with gentrification, violence, and the neighborhood’s historical character, is telling a story about what it means to be black — nigga or otherwise — in America. It’s a lofty aim. The show examines black culture through its music, literature, television, and film, while never forgetting that it’s a superhero series. It isn’t easy to encapsulate all these themes and influences, and the show sometimes strains visibly to pull off its ambitions. But when it works, it excels, making the series more than another excellent Marvel series. It’s must-see TV.
Minor spoilers ahead.
Luke Cage sees its eponymous hero break out on his own after his debut in the 2015 Netflix series Jessica Jones. He’s left Hell’s Kitchen for Harlem, where he sweeps floors at Pop’s Barbershop by day and washes dishes at a club called Harlem’s Paradise by night. That nightclub is owned by Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes (Mahershala Ali), who is consolidating power as New York’s newest crime boss. The money he earns from his criminal enterprise funds his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) and her aim to "Keep Harlem Black." Thanks to these players, a drug trade now exploring military-grade weaponry, and the political forces at work in Harlem, the neighborhood is a powder keg ready to explode. But the early episodes don’t throw Luke immediately into superheroics. They focus on letting his surroundings breathe. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has described this series as "the Wu-Tang-ification of the Marvel Universe," and it shows. Luke Cage blends the funky hard edge of ‘70s blaxploitation — the period that gave birth to Luke Cage’s comics counterpart — with present-day hip-hop, while flitting across genres and eras of black entertainment. All these influences are used as a means to better understand the characters involved, well before the plot really gets moving.
Series composers Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammed let Nina Simone’s vocals hover over their score. Characters discuss the merits of authors like Walter Mosley, and who was the better coach, Phil Jackson or Pat Riley. And then there are the appearances by Harlem legends like Dapper Dan, and entertainers as varied as Raphael Saadiq, Jidenna, and Faith Evans. This is a lot of focus on culture, and it sometimes makes the show slow and flabby. But Coker’s commitment to black voices shows in his attempts to incorporate them as seamlessly as possible. The effort is admirable, if only because Coker’s love and eclecticism is so plainly evident.
Luke Cage is the most prominent of those voices. Colter’s version of Cage isn’t the hard-as-nails vigilante from the comics, but he brings a dignity and smoothness to the role that makes him enjoyable to watch. As one character puts it, Luke is Harlem’s Captain America, and the comparison is powerful. He’s upright, righteous, and even a little corny. He rarely curses, and he hates bullies. He’s hiding tremendous anguish. And above all, he exalts black heroism in the face of adversity. He isn’t about to let that heroism be reduced to a word that causes people so much pain. Colter could stand to be more expressive in some scenes, but that’s remedied whenever he puts his powers to use. Luke is a tank, and seeing him throw bad guys around or take gunfire like it’s nothing — all while wearing a hoodie that recalls Trayvon Martin’s — is genuinely thrilling. Overall, his performance is grounded and workmanlike, and it only gets better as the stakes get higher.
When Colter falls short, he’s elevated by a stellar supporting cast that ranges from good to downright inspiring. Each of the main subsidiary characters encapsulates a different perspective in this uptown New York melting pot. The Wire alum Frankie Faison appears as barbershop owner Pop, full of advice and wisdom for Luke and the community. Simone Missick plays Marvel badass Misty Knight, an undercover detective investigating Harlem’s dark underbelly and Luke’s place in it. Sons of Anarchy’s Theo Rossi slithers around on-screen as the shady criminal go-between Shades. And Rosario Dawson continues to play Claire Temple, her character from Jessica Jones and Daredevil. She’s inching ever closer to her eventual role as Night Nurse, and someone needs to give her a show of her own already.
But Alfre Woodard and Mahershala Ali make the show unmissable, and it all comes down to how they envision black power. Mariah Dillard is full of ideals about her city and black people’s place in it. "My Harlem," she says, "is saturated with jazz and good food and the pure genius that permeates the streets." She is respectability politics personified. She’s also compromised, thanks to her dealings with Cottonmouth’s business. Cottonmouth, on the other hand, is charismatic and dangerous. He’s the perfect foil for Luke Cage, yet another dark mirror image that villains like the Kingpin and Loki provide for their opposite numbers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But even he is driven by honor and a desire to see black people empowered, no matter the means or the cost.
Mariah and Cottonmouth’s relationship gets at the heart of why the N-word is so important to this series. It’s spoken emphatically and often, largely because that’s how people speak in the real world. But its meaning changes depending on who says it. "It’s niggas like me that let you hold onto what you got," Cottonmouth tells Mariah, hiding the intent in his words. "You know I despise that word," she replies. "I know," he says. "It’s easy to underestimate a nigga. They never see you coming." Mariah, like Luke Cage, rejects the word. But Cottonmouth has subverted and reclaimed it, using it as a way of challenging the damaging expectations put on his community. Yes, he’s a crime lord, but he’s thriving on his terms, and he apologizes to no one.
This series makes a powerful statement about power, striving, and heroism today
Luke Cage is great television, managing to continue Marvel’s streak of using superheroes to explore complex, nuanced themes while also standing out amid other shows mining the black experience to great effect. Where Jessica Jones was an extended meditation on trauma and abuse in women’s lives, this series uses black culture in all forms to make a statement about power, striving, and heroism in America. It’s no wonder Luke Cage is called Power Man right in the first episode. Being black is a superpower all its own.